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Hear the National Book Award Winners

by Linda Kulman
Nov 20, 2007

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

The National Book Awards are the literary world's answer to the Oscars, although the annual black-tie awards ceremony, held earlier this month in New York, comes in a somewhat less glamorous package. And winning doesn't guarantee a blockbuster. But since the first awards were given in 1950, judges seem to have had a knack for choosing books that have withstood the test of time.

This year, the winners include a Vietnam epic, a chronicle of the CIA's failures, a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage Spokane Indian and a collection of poems from a former U.S. poet laureate.

Winner, Fiction: Denis Johnson's 'Tree of Smoke'

Although author Denis Johnson, on assignment in Iraq, left his wife an envelope that read "just in case," few observers expected anyone else to take last week's National Book Award for fiction. Tree of Smoke, Johnson's Vietnam epic, is a demanding read. But in its pre-awards commentary, Publishers Weekly urges, simply, "Read it." And the Washington Post says "that by the end," the saga "wraps around you as tightly as a jungle snake."

Johnson is the critically acclaimed author of numerous books, including novels, short story and poetry collections and reportage. His gritty fiction tends to center on characters on drugs, on the rebound or in various other states of distress. Tree of Smoke, his first full-length novel in nearly a decade, takes up the blurry unreality of war and its effect on the human psyche.

Listen to Actor Neal Huff Read an Excerpt from Tree of Smoke at the National Book Awards Ceremony.

Read an Excerpt from Tree of Smoke.

Winner, Nonfiction: Tim Weiner's 'Legacy of Ashes'

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes wasn't necessarily the odds-on favorite to win the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, not because his bestseller on the CIA's 60-year history of failure was thought to be a weak candidate, but because the competition was considerable.

Weiner brought prodigious reporting skills to bear on his narrative, drawing on more than 50,000 declassified documents and his interviews with 10 CIA directors and hundreds of officials. Legacy of Ashes is entirely on the record, a fact that is both "remarkable" and "admirable," says the Los Angeles Times.

The book is less a thriller than it is a damning record of the U.S. spy agency's many missed opportunities. "This nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world," writes Weiner. "That was once the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency."

Listen to Tim Weiner Read an Excerpt from Legacy of Ashes at the National Book Awards Ceremony.

Read an Excerpt from Legacy of Ashes.

Winner, Young People's Literature: Sherman Alexie's 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian'

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is not the first time Young People's Literature award winner Sherman Alexie has drawn on his experiences as a Spokane Indian, but the New York Times says that the author's first attempt at the genre "may be his best work yet." The tragicomic semi-autobiography tracks a year in the life of geeky teenager Arnold "Junior" Spirit as he leaves the "rez" to attend high school 22 miles away. Outwardly at least, the boy shares more in common with the school's Indian mascot than with any of his all-white classmates, while back home, his friends call him a traitor.

Alexie, who in real life dropped his plans to become a doctor after fainting repeatedly in human anatomy class, lost no time in becoming a prolific writer, publishing 18 books of poetry, short story collections and novels in 16 years and collecting a number of literary prizes and citations along the way. His first foray into screenplay writing resulted in the 1998 award-winning film Smoke Signals.

Listen to Sherman Alexie Read an Excerpt from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at the National Book Awards Ceremony.

Read an Excerpt from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Winner, Poetry: Robert Hass' 'Time and Materials'

Time and Materials, the first new collection from Robert Hass to appear in ten years, "may be his best in 30," says Publishers Weekly of the 2007 National Book Award winner for poetry. Hass, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, served two terms as U.S. poet laureate, from 1995 to 1997, and is a two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His quietly ambitious work, often about the physical world and the limits of love, loss and frayed family ties, occupies a terrain of compassion rather than of complaint; his language is conversational, even commonplace. Poet Stanley Kunitz once said that reading one of Hass's poems "is like stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from that of the air. You scarcely know, until you feel the undertow tug at you, that you have entered into another element."

Listen to Robert Hass Read a Poem from Time and Materials at the National Book Awards Ceremony.

Read a Poem from Time and Materials.

These readings of the National Book Award winners were recorded on Nov. 13, 2007, at The New School in New York City. All readings are by the authors with the exception of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, read by actor Neal Huff.

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